Rodgers Exxon closing after 80 years in business

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Sidney Blackmer, the famous Salisbury actor, used to have his car work done here.
Elizabeth Dole’s father, John Van Hanford, routinely stopped by for a couple of evening cigars and to chew the fat before heading for home.
“He was a lot of fun to talk to,” Bobby Rodgers says.
Through the years, an army of boys from nearby Salisbury High School worked at this neighborhood service station at South Fulton Street and Lincolnton Road.
Five different sets of brothers were among the attendants who washed cars, pumped gas, changed tires, cleaned windshields and checked under the hood of customers who kept coming back.
“We had a pretty good group of guys,” Rodgers says.
Those busy days ó when motorists could collect drinking glasses or steak knives with every fill-up ó seem distant now. But somehow Rodgers Exxon relied on loyal patrons and an emphasis on service to stand fast against time and change.
Until now.
On Dec. 31, Bobby Rodgers will turn out the lights on his full-service station for good, bringing to an end almost 80 straight years in which he or his dad, Buck, manned the pumps, greased and inspected cars or oversaw the whole operation.
The gas pumps already have been bagged, and a Realtor’s for-sale sign has been planted out front.
Bobby Rodgers thought he’d stick it out one more year, but he accelerated his retirement plans when he decided against updating his pumps and changing out some piping underneath them.
He says he’ll miss his customers most of all.
Tom Matusie has been bringing his cars to Rodgers Exxon for close to 20 years. Even when he moved out of the city to a new home in Mill Bridge, Matusie never thought of leaving the routine servicing of his cars to anyone else but Rodgers and his right-hand man, Peter Fowler.
Matusie sits on a folding chair inside the garage while Rodgers and Fowler inspect his Dodge Durango.
“You’re always going to get your work done right,” Matusie says, explaining his loyalty. “I’ve never had a problem.”
Where will he go for his car work in the future?
“I don’t know,” Matusie says, nodding toward Rodgers. “He’s going to have to tell me.”
Mary White brings her BMW in every year for inspection. She sits in the office and talks on her cell phone while she waits for Fowler and Rodgers to finish. It’s never a long wait, she says later.
“They’re friendly, and the service is great,” White says. “I didn’t know he was closing. I’m going to miss him.”
White used to live on Fisher Street. When she moved into “the country,” she also continued bringing her car to Rodgers Exxon.
Salisbury High (then Boyden High School) and this service station on a pie-shaped wedge of the neighborhood were both built in 1926. Buck Rodgers came to work for the Standard Oil station April 16, 1929, and Aubrey Fisher, his longtime partner until 1962, arrived six weeks later.
Standard Oil went to a dealership basis in 1936, and Fisher and Rodgers took over the operation, leasing the building from the oil company. When Fisher retired, Bobby bought his half of the business. He bought out his father’s half in 1975, when he also purchased the property from Exxon.
Buck Rodgers grew up in a house at 915 S. Fulton St., just a few doors away from the station, so he spent much of his life within one Salisbury block. Exxon recognized Buck’s 50 years in the business in 1979. He died only a few years later.
The tall windows of the tiny office next to the three-bay garage gave Rodgers and his late father a great view of things. The high school traffic ó pedestrians and cars ó especially provided some good people watching in the mornings and afternoons
Principals and teachers did a lot of business with the garage through the years, an appreciative Rodgers says. He never would have traded his neighborhood spot for a busier, multi-lane highway location.
“Seeing people that you know is really nice,” Rodgers says. “You wouldn’t have much of that on the interstate.”
The station relied so much on return business at one time that it maintained a mailing list approaching 350 people. It also kept charge accounts for many of its regular customers, though the accounts were gradually phased out.
Rodgers says he still has five people with charge accounts, including Mayor Susan Kluttz.
Over time, the two men named Rodgers saw the price of gasoline range from 13 cents, when Buck started, to more than $4 a gallon. In later years, Bobby Rodgers never sold a lot of gasoline, which was generally priced 30 cents a gallon above self-service locations because of the full service he still provided.
Standard Oil and its incarnations as Esso, Humble and Exxon always preached service, Rodgers says.
“And it was monkey see, monkey do,” he adds. “Anybody who worked here had to maintain that.”
He recalls when he would leave the station to boost someone’s dead battery, or when he would pick cars up at people’s houses, take them to the station for service and drive them back.
If someone just stopped into the station for a map or directions, the attendants were instructed to service the driver’s car.
“It was amazing what you did for nothing,” Bobby says.
When all full-service stations in town washed cars, Rodgers Exxon needed at least four high school boys on Saturdays to meet the demand.
“You had to do a super job,” Bobby says, “because that spoke for your business.”
Since the late 1960s, tune-ups, inspections, brake jobs, muffler work, water pump replacement, oil changes and the like became the backbone of the business.
Rodgers says the increasing dependence on computers for engine analysis “left us in the dark.”
“Peter didn’t want to do it, and I was too old to do it,” he says.
The present building dates back to 1955. Exxon tore down the original building and built the replacement within 65 days. The new canopy, pumps and tanks installed in 1994 cost as much as what he paid for the rest of the building, Rodgers says.
A 1958 graduate of Boyden High, Rodgers started working at the service station when he was 12, when his father paid him out of his own pocket. By 14, he was an official employee.
“I knew right away working around cars might be fun ó cause you got to drive them,” Rodgers says.
His first jobs included waiting on cars, cleaning the restrooms and sweeping. Before long, he became a grease monkey, just as his father had been when he started at the station.
Fowler has been with Bobby off and on since 1971, and Rodgers describes him as a “very good and gifted mechanic” with a high IQ. Fowler says he’s not sure what he’ll do when the Exxon closes, except take some time off.
As for his own retirement, Rodgers sees himself spending more time with his two grandsons. He and his wife, an executive with Lowe’s in Mooresville, will continue to live on Lake Norman.
“I’ll be the yard man,” Rodgers predicts. The couple also have a mountain cottage near Blowing Rock.
His homes on the lake and in the mountains have a lot of windows, good for seeing out.
It had to be that way, Rodgers says. Having a good view of things always reminds him of the little service station in Salisbury, where people traded with him or his father for eight solid decades.
Eighty years ó now that’s full service.